Why STEM Is Missing a Vowel

03 Mar 2022

In 2001 the National Science Foundation introduced the acronym “STEM” and started a national conversation about science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Other iterations are STEAM, to include the arts or agriculture, or STREAM to include reading. I propose that one vowel is noticeably absent: “I” for inclusion.

Tameka Woodruff, Scienc and Technology Program Coordinator

The following was written by Tameka Woodruff, a science and technology coordinator and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Woodruff was selected by Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2020-2021 school year.

In 2001 the National Science Foundation introduced the acronym “STEM” and started a national conversation about science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Other iterations are STEAM, to include the arts or agriculture, or STREAM to include reading. I propose that one vowel is noticeably absent: “I” for inclusion.

The Characteristics of Inclusion

The characteristics of inclusion center around race, gender and ability. The United States has witnessed a marked growth in the number of STEM jobs during the past 20 years, which coincides with a dramatic increase in awareness about the importance of STEM education to prepare for 21st-century professions as well as diversity deficiencies in these same areas. Today, the makeup of the STEM workforce remains essentially unchanged: Caucasian males are still the majority.

An abundance of research has revealed why the pipeline for underrepresented populations remains narrow. Too often students exit the STEM educational pipeline far too early. During my tenure as a middle school teacher, I was perplexed by students who felt they had a better chance of playing a professional sport than becoming a STEM professional.

This isn’t just a middle school problem. Many students choose STEM majors in college only to exit the pipeline. I have often wondered why. Was it because they hadn’t had the “right” teachers to truly engage them? Was it that they didn’t feel adequately prepared? Could it be because they didn’t see STEM professionals who looked like them? Did they have enough (or any) exposure to STEM outside of school? Was it a combination?

I have come to the realization that that the issue is complex and multifaceted. I’ve also realized that while important, focusing on the problem wasn’t as important as finding solutions. Engaging students in STEM content, helping them build skills and exposing them to careers is essential to improving representation. Dynamic programs that include near-peer mentors are a wonderful example of ways to ignite students’ interest in STEM.

Digital resources offer a great way to bridge the divide and help more students and teachers become engaged. STEM education can and should be part of the social media evolution to reach larger audiences.

Inclusive Content

Critical thinking and skills associated with STEM truly can coexist with all subjects. STEM education is not exclusive to the four areas covered by its acronym. Unfortunately I’ve heard too many English, history, physical education, or art teachers say “I'm not a STEM teacher.” How do we help educators in all subjects see that they, too, actually are STEM teachers?

First, educators in STEM subjects should consciously include other subject areas in their lessons. If you take a moment and Google “STEM,” images will appear with “STEM” surrounded by atoms, calculators, circuits and gears. Where are books, people, maps and other more personal and relatable images? It appears that graphics developers are focusing more on traditional subjects.

In addition to altering visual misrepresentations, STEM training should be available to all educators regardless of their subject area. Oftentimes STEM training is reserved for science, technology, engineering and math teachers, so it is imperative that districts and schools find the means to promote continuous STEM professional development for all. When teachers have an opportunity to participate in STEM education that includes and even welcomes their subject areas, their eyes will be opened to infinite possibilities — not to mention the importance of cross-pollination of STEM skills.

Finally, creating transdisciplinary learning experiences is a research-based best practice for helping students hone their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. It takes time, effort and support to successfully accomplish this feat, and many educators are afraid to approach this seemingly daunting task. Several factors contribute to this fear including intense focus on standardized testing, feeling that there is not enough time to get through the curriculum as it is, not knowing how to begin, lack of common planning times, and fear of approaching topics deemed to be outside of their content area.

Inclusive Communities

While the term “STEM ecosystem” is quite new to the STEM educational movement, it is a tried-and-true method of success that enables educators to tap into community resources, such as industry volunteers and internships, which in turn enhance the STEM experience for today’s learners. STEM ecosystems strengthen learning by providing access to content, resources and materials that may not be readily available within the classroom. While my school had a slight advantage through its many generous partners in our internship program, I know that this is not true for all schools.

No matter how we dress it up, a school’s mission is simply to educate and develop students who are capable of participating in and shaping tomorrow’s workforce. Community businesses and organizations have their own missions, which always includes welcoming the next generation to their workforce. When schools decide to establish their own STEM ecosystem, their first task is to identify ways to align missions so that all benefit. For example, schools often depend on outside partners for STEM fair judges, guest speakers, student internships and mentorships, and access to resources. Schools must be specific with their requests and ensure their education partners benefit as well.

Potential Solutions

I have highlighted these challenges for increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM from an educator’s perspective. The pandemic introduced many new challenges, yet also forced innovation. I encourage you to:

  • promote STEM via social media in engaging ways;
  • support relationship building between students and near-peer mentors;
  • establish a modern version of “TeacherTube” where teachers can find support and professional development (virtual platforms allow organizations to partner with multiple schools for an even greater impact); and
  • promote the characteristics of STEM learning (such as building critical-thinking skills and using the design process) by finding ways to include educators in all subject areas and showing them the importance of their participation.

We all must persevere to ensure that the "I" is fully present in STEM, that educators in all subject areas feel invited and welcomed to the STEM party and that STEM ecosystems take root and grow beyond a handful of schools.


Tameka Woodruff, Ph.D., is a science and technology program coordinator for Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. Her primary job responsibilities include planning, developing, implementing, monitoring and assessing STEM-related instructional programs; facilitating school-based professional development; providing mentoring and coaching to teachers and obtaining and fostering community partnerships. Woodruff received her B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Norfolk State University, Columbia College and Northcentral University, respectively.


The goal of the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES) is to work with school districts to ensure that all young people complete their secondary and postsecondary education “STEM ready.” This vision is intentionally inclusive of all students and reflects educational inequities. TIES defines success not by whether students choose to pursue STEM careers but by whether they have been provided high-value, relevant education that allows them to graduate with the skills and knowledge to make informed choices. TIES’s role in the Defense STEM Education Consortium is to expand partnerships between numerous TIES ecosystem projects and DoD laboratories. For more information, visit tiesteach.org.